31 January 2006

Fairy chess

I just played a strange game of chess in a dream.

I have a soft spot for chess variants. I think it's my hope that there's one of them that I will actually turn out to be good at, since I'm actually a very poor chess player.

Just a little while ago, I was telling a client about Kriegspiel, a variant in which you cannot see your opponent's pieces. Traditionally, you have a referee who sees the board behind a screen, though I suppose now you can do it with software. A player tries making a move, but then the referee tells them whether or not the move was legal. Unfortunately, I was telling my client about this as a metaphor for their software: their interface had you manipulating data without being able to see it very well, with lots of unpleasant, surprising error messages saying "you can't do that."

Kriegspiel is one of the more famous variants, but there are a number of popular others and there are seemingly endless obscure variations, so probably someone out there has already played the game I played in my dream.

The game started with an empty board and the normal set of pieces, in the custody of each player. Each turn, you could make a normal move or deploy a new piece onto any square. In the dream, this made the early phase of placing pieces seem more like Go than like chess.

I have no idea if this is actually a playable game. In the dream, there was also a rule that you couldn't place a piece to create a situation of check or checkmate. But I think no reasonable player would place their king until last anyway. In fact, it's a flaw of the game as I dreamed it that you could withhold your king, and not place it at all! Fortunately for my dream, I woke up before I got to the end of the placement process.

You could solve that problem by having to place the king as your first move, with the rule that you cannot put your opponent's king into check until you've placed all of your pieces. That's a kind of cool reversal of the normal rules for check, which appeals to my sense of whimsy. And the question of whether to place the king centrally or on the edge adds an interesting layer of playing style.

Alternatively, you could have some rule that compels completion of the placement process. Maybe you must place your king as your next move after you place your queen. This would lead to a player who's losing the advantage wanting to work their way out by summoning their queen, but then the opponent with the advantage would have the choice of countering with a queen with the knowledge of where the first player's queen went. I don't know if that would work. Maybe when one player places their king, the other player must place their king as the following move, which might produce some interesting play where a player who thinks they have an advantage can precipitate the question of kings.

However you solve the king placement problem, you get a game with two phases. It starts with a placement phase, which is more purely about territory, like Go, then switch to a king-hunting phase more like normal chess. Solving the problem of king placement is the key to making it a real game, I think. Though maybe there's something about the board, too; it might make sense to make it a touch bigger, say 10x10.

30 January 2006

Literacy

I was just talking to a friend about critical thinking skills, and the commonplace lack thereof, and how this is one of the things everyone should learn in school. And I now learn that we ain't even close.
More than half of students at four-year colleges --- and at least 75 percent at two-year colleges --- lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks ...
Like what?
They cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.
Good gods. Apparently the survey showed folks were worst at math. I'm not talking about understanding calculus, here.
Almost 20 percent of students pursuing four-year degrees had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station.
You can download the full report if you want. I'm not sure I can face it.
"It is kind of disturbing that a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they're not going to be able to do those things," said Stephane Baldi, the study's director ...
"Kind of" disturbing? Ya think?

Look at that first list of examples of things that folks cannot do. Notice something? They're all areas where people were asked to read something that would likely be written with an intent to deceive them. But I'd guess that the folks who created this study didn't even use particularly deceptive examples. And we live in a society where deceiving us has become an industrial process.

The Man doesn't want you to have critical thinking skills. Be a rebel. Go get yourself some.

29 January 2006

Gung hoy fat choy

Happy Year of the Fire Dog!

Today might be a good day to check out Firedoglake, which is a pretty good lefty blog.

28 January 2006

Trogday

Trogdor has just turned three years old.

Happy trogday to you
Happy trogday to you
Happy trogday, dear Trogdor
Happy trogday to you!

Against the unhappy possibility that you don't know what I'm talking about, run, do not walk, to see Strong Bad's original email about Trogdor.

And for the seriously geeky, fans of both Trogdor and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other high geekiness, I find that video of Trogdor's cameo in the final episode of Buffy is, of course, available on the web.

27 January 2006

Mock Swedish

I haven't seen The Muppet Show since I was a kid. One bit from it that I remember was the episode in which Madeline Kahn was the guest star. It turns out that she can talk to the Swedish Chef, which astonishes the other muppets, who are totally unable to communcate with him. “I rarely get a chance to speak Mock Swedish,” explains Kahn. “I had to learn it for a film rôle years ago, but hardly anyone speaks it.”

I recounted this to a friend a while ago, who thought that was terribly funny, because it turns out that Madeline Kahn really did do a film in Mock Swedish! De Düva is a very funny parody of Ingmar Bergman's films, done in Mock Swedish with English subtitles.

I thought that this was a time-release joke that took me twenty years to get, but it turns out that it's actually a weird stroke of luck in my flawed memory, because the Madeline Kahn gag with the Chef apparently never happened. My memory seems to actually be a mangled recollection of Jean Stapleton's appearance on the show, in which she reveals that she learned Mock Swedish through a correspondence course.

What can I say? It's a joke they should have made.

26 January 2006

Go ahead, make my day

Googling on "Dirty" Harry Callahan's immortal words "go ahead, make my day," I stumbled across a witty and interesting law school paper using the phrase as an example.
The assailant could complete performance, and thus manifest his acceptance of the offer, by continuing to threaten the hostage and risking Callahan’s violent response. This did not happen. Nor is this an example of acceptance by silence. Although the man gave no verbal response, by putting his gun down it effectively established he did not presume to discover what might have made Callahan’s day. As there was no acceptance, no contract was formed.
I hadn't seen Sudden Impact in some time. It turns out that Lt. Callahan was implying that he hoped that a robber would shoot a hostage, thereby giving Callahan justification in shooting the robber.

Ew.

Now let me say that Callahan's other famous line, from Dirty Harry, doesn't squick me in the same way. At the beginning of the movie, Callahan has just been in a shootout with a bunch of bank robbers and has a bead on the last one who has a gun within easy reach.

I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being as this is the .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and could blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do you, punk?
The robber surrenders, but it turns out Callahan was bluffing. That kind of cool in the face of high stakes is an appealing fantasy. There's a part of me that yearns to be that kind of cool, even if it isn't a fantasy that I actually want to fulfill.

But the "make my day" isn't even appealing on a fantasy level. Callahan isn't even just shooting bad guys, or out-cooling them --- fantasies I can roll with. He's actively hoping that the bad guys make things worse so he has cause for further violent retribution. My fantasies don't look like that. But apparently some people's do.

25 January 2006

Are you ready to rock?

Via MKB, I learn that one person dares to truly consider the question.

(Oh, and that makes me think of another thing entirely.)

24 January 2006

Today's wiretap link

John in DC at AMERICAblog connects the dots about what it means if the Bush administration's illegal wiretaps included taps on journalists. It makes sense, because ...
... journalists have some of the best contacts out there and it's not unusual for journalists to talk to both sides of the story, or in this case, the good guys and the "evil doers." What a better, if not illegal, way to find the terrorists and their associates?

But before you say "yeah, go for it," consider the implications ...

... which are very not-good. Follow the link.

23 January 2006

Notice the hanger

From the magnificent Paul Conrad.

Tree of Life diagram

I know that I have a number of qabalist readers, so it occurred to me that y'all might like to use some new Tree of Life diagram images that I ginned up recently for my own nefarious qabalah doings.



Tree of Life

Tree of life diagram

Tree of Life

Sephiroth only

The path of the Lightning Flash on the Tree of Life

Tree of Life diagram

Complex view of the Tree of Life in qabalah

Tree of Life sephiroth as shapes

Tree of life with the lightning flash

22 January 2006

Joss' obsessions

Somewhere, I recall a bit of advice about writing fiction: that you should figure out what your obsessions are, and go deep into them, rather than trying to stick to what you think other people will find interesting. My man Joss Whedon is an example of this.

In the commentary track for Serenity, he says this over the bit of the film where we see little River, backlit, with an big nasty weapon in each hand, surrounded by countless bad guys who have fallen by her hand.

Here we have the Hero Shot, and I have never used that term more literally in my life. We designed the entire set, and the entire sequence, for this moment. It has been pointed out to me that I have a problem making fiction that doesn't have super-powered adolescent girls in it. I don't care. I think that's one of the sweetest things that I ever shot, and it makes me very happy.

Joss is unusually articulate about the dramatic logic that underlies his work, which is part of my fascination with him — I love getting to see the machinery — and why I keep quoting him here. And in some production notes in the Serenity Visual Companion which I am, yes, nerdy enough to own, he sums up the deal with River very tidily.

She is the monster. She is the damsel. She is the action hero.

I don't know about you, but that's how I like my feminism served: as the main dish on a big plate of pop culture fun.

21 January 2006

WTF?

Naomi Wolf just admitted that she recently found Jesus.

Troll

Apparently, it's now illegal to be anonymous and annoying online. You can go to jail for two years!

Don't get me wrong, I oppose the death penalty but I'm tempted to revisit that position for spammers. But "annoy"? Internet discussion groups were founded on the principle of anonymous annoyance!

20 January 2006

More on Iran

Ken MacLeod is spooked by rumblings of war with Iran.
'There is a feeling of 1914 in the air,' Denis MacShane remarked the other day, about Iran. That feeling is of watching as the machinery grinds towards a war that future historians will look upon with horrified amazement.
Jeanne at Body and Soul asks some hard questions about the Iran situation: given that Iran becoming a nuclear power is apparently inevitable, how did this happen and what should we do?

Metal

Via Ashub, I find a guide to forming a heavy metal band full of delightfully unhelpful explanations of the difference between black metal and death metal.
The first thing you need to do if you want to start a band is figure out which genre of metal you are going to dip your toe into: death or black? What's the difference, you ask? Ah, well, that is like asking the difference between a cadaver pregnant with a demon's child and a forest haunted with pedophilic Viking spirits. Like, duh.
There's also some good stuff about how to dress, picking a band name, writing lyrics, and The Golden Girls.

If you decide to go the death metal route, ever-helpful Strong Bad has advice for you. If you go with black metal, I'm afraid you're on your own.

19 January 2006

Doonesbury

Dear Mr. Trudeau:

I've enjoyed your strip since I was a young sprout. Usually still do. However.

Please stop being a sanctimonious old fart. (And no, joking about knowing that you are a sanctimonious old fart while you're doing it does not excuse you.) Baby Boomers are not the moral center of the universe. No matter how smart and witty you write Alex, it does not excuse writing Jeff and Zipper as amoral idiots.

I've mentioned this before. Straighten yourself out, man.

Cordially,

Jonathan Korman

18 January 2006

Impeach Bush

52% of Americans polled favour impeachment hearings for the President if he ordered wiretapping Americans without judicial oversight, which means that 52% of Americans favour impeachment hearings, since he did do that. This includes 33% of people who describe themselves as conservatives. (And in case you're wondering, 36% of people polled in 1998 favoured hearings for Bill Clinton.)

Really.

Evil and insane

Jeanne at Body and Soul extracts the essence of a story in the Washington Post.
one of the prisoners at Guantanamo, Saddiq Ahmad Turkistani, was freed from a Taliban prison, where he was held for supposedly trying to kill Osama bin Laden --- something he confessed to under torture. He offered to help the United States, with whom he thought he shared a common enemy. The U.S. offered him refuge. He apparently forgot to read the fine print in the deal. He was stripped, tied up, fitted with dark goggles, and tossed on a plane for Cuba, where he has remained for four years.
"I don't see any method at all, sir."

17 January 2006

Urban design in Rio de Janeiro

So a few months back, I spent a week in Brazil. Most folks come back from a trip abroad with pictures of themselves in front of sightseeing attractions. I come back with photos of urban design ... and they didn't even come out that well. But I was pretty excited by the sidewalks in the Leblon district of Rio, where I stayed — and I've been reading City Comforts this week, which is all about this stuff — so I'm posting about it anyway.

The most important thing about them is very difficult to photograph, because it lives the the succession of things that you see walking down the sidewalk. The buildings mostly have a gently partitioned relationship with the sidewalk: there are big shop windows, waist-high concrete fences topped with iron, rows of elegant little metal bollards, trees and bushes, and so forth. So even though the streets are narrow, they don't feel confining, and there's always something to look at.

The sidewalks are also done with this tile mosaic in black and white, made into constantly varying big geometric patterns: swoopy curves and broad stripes. It really livened up the sidewalk, ordinarily so bland, in a simple and tasteful way. It made me think of the city of Neverness, in David Zindell's elegantly written SF novels, which he describes as marked with coloured stripes that make it possible to navigate the twisty, nameless streets; I imagine one might have a city with mosaics like Rio's that obey some rule, such that it would be impossible to get lost because the sidewalks always tell you where you are.

The neighborhood also has slightly sunken bike paths in red brick. The paths weave in and out of normal sidewalk space, and the different colour of the ground keeps you conscious of when you should keep an eye out for cyclists --- and adds a little charm to the sidewalk.

bike path

Notice, too, the little bollards in the centerline of the bike path. More gentle partitioning of the space.

Many of the intersections — especially the busy ones — had a very distinctive partition between the cars' street and the pedestrians' sidewalk. Though most of the streets had curbs, the corners had the sidewalk flush with the street, but there were rows of silver balls set into the ground, about a foot and a half high.

This was surprisingly effective in creating a psychological barrier between human and car space, and accomodated people on wheels better than the curb cuts that are common in the US. A beautiful, effective, and distinctive solution to creating that simple partition.



Update: LiveJournal based reader SterlingSF adds a comment ...

Amsterdam also makes use of the slightly separate bike path. It's a little scary when there's a lot of bike traffic becuase you can brush against the curb.
... and points out a cool collection of pictures of bike paths around the world.

16 January 2006

MLK Day

For more than a decade, I've been spamming people with this note every year. Now that I have a blog, I'm just sticking to re-posting every year. If you were here this time last year, read it again anyway.

Really. Take a few minutes. I think it's important ...

15 January 2006

Political ambition

I learn that a Mr. Jonathon Sharkey is running for Governor of Minnesota in 2006.
Honesty is very seldom heard nowadays, especially from a politician. So, I am going to break from political tradition. My name is Jonathon "The Impaler" Sharkey, Ph.D., L.D.D.D. I am a Satanic Dark Priest, Sanguinarian Vampyre and a Hecate Witch
Don't worry, folks. He assures us he's not evil. I'm inclined to take him at his word. Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, after all, had a love of the theatrical but was no more evil than Bela Lugosi.

In spite of this possible political handicap, I like his chances. He's a former pro wrestler, like another successful dark horse candidate for the job was recently. Recent events have taught us that there is no embarassment on video so horrendous that it will prevent you from becoming Governor of California. (And really, you gotta watch the whole thing. It just gets worse and worse.)

Oh, and Sharkey plans on running for President of the United States in 2008. Give 'em hell, Jonathon.

(BTW, I see via Indri at Waterbones that bOING bOING has picked up the story --- and both of them have interesting things to say about him --- but I actually got it early via Dragonladyflame.)

14 January 2006

Globe

Via Warren Ellis, I learn that this map was apparently made in China a few decades before Christopher Columbus was even born. Or was it?

Class

Joe Bageant has a long, brilliant, poetic, ugly screed singing both the pains and the dangers of the hungry, angry American white working class.

My point here is that we rural and small town mutt people by an early age seem to have a special capacity for cruelty, compared say, to damned near every other imaginable group of Americans. For instance, as a child did you ever put a firecracker up a toad’s ass and light it? George Bush and I have that in common. Anyway, as all non-whites the world round understand, white people can be mean. Especially if they feel threatened—and they feel threatened about everything these days. But when you provide certain species of white mutt people with the right incentives, such as free pork or approval from god and government, you get things like lynchings, Fallujah, the Birmingham bombers and Abu Ghraib.

....

Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job training mills, ranging from the truck driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry. Education is not supposed to be an industry. Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture. This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information, facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical and human context or priority.

No one should be forced to dive into an ocean of debt to learn how the world works, much less escape minimum wage hell. It should be enough just to want to know. Then too, look at our educational institutions. Academia, at least from this outsider's perspective, is an almost impenetrable veneer of elitist flatulence and toxic competition. Jesus, no wonder this country is in such sorry shape.

— Arvin Hill, Texas philosopher
....

So we will either see that Americans, religious or not, get educated equally so they won’t be suckered by political and religious hucksters. If not, then we must accept that uneducated people interpret politics in an uninformed and emotional manner, and accept the consequences. America can no longer withstand the political naïveté of this ignored white class. Middle class American liberals cannot have it both ways. It has come down to the simplest and most profound element of democracy: Fairness. Someday middle class American liberals will have to cop to fraternity and justice and the fact that we are our brother’s keeper, whether we like it or not. They’re going to have to sit down and actually speak to these people they consider ugly, overweight, ill educated and in poor taste. At some point down the road all the Montessori schools and Ivy League degrees in the world are not going to save your children and grandchildren from what our intellectual peasantry, whether born of neglect or purposefully maintained, is capable of supporting politically. We’ve all seen the gritty black and white newsreels from the 1930s.

It's long, but the whole thing is a worthwhile ... though very uncomfortable ... read. It's a good counterpoint to my old post about the mass psychology of Republicanism. (And if you haven't read that, hey, it's the high point of my quote-and-links craftiness, so check it out.)

Then, if you really want a chill, check out what Bageant has to say about the Left Behind series.

13 January 2006

The Men Who Stare at Goats

A little while ago, I read The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, who is apparently pretty famous in the UK for doing odd little documentaries for the BBC. The book is a recounting of what he learned talking to some folks who report some very odd things going on in the US military's intelligence services.

“The man behind the slogan ‘Be All You Can Be.’ Torture using Barney the Purple Dinosaur. A US Army general trying to levitate and walk through walls.”

And yeah, staring at goats. I have a long quote from the book about that.

“We had a master sergeant who could stop the heart of a goat.”

There was a silence. Glenn raised an eyebrow.

“Just by ...” I said.

“Just by wanting the goat's heart to stop,” said Glenn.

“That's quite a leap,” I said.

“Right,” said Glenn.

“And did he make the goat's heart stop?” I asked.

“He did it at least once,” said Glenn.

“Huh,” I said. I really didn't know how to respond to this.

“But it's not really an area you want to ...”

“Go to,” I said.

“That's right,” said Glenn. “Not an area you want to go to, because as it turned out in the evaluation he actually did some damage to himself as well.”

“Huh,” I said again.

“Sympathetic injury,” said Glenn.

“So it's not as if the goat was psychically fighting back?” I asked.

“Goat didn't have a chance,” said Glenn.

....

Goat Lab, which exists to this day, is secret. Most of the soldiers who live and work within Fort Bragg don't even know of its existence. Those military personnel not in the loop, said Glenn, assume that the rickety clapboard hoptal buildings dating from the Second World War, situated down an unpavd track in an overgrown wooded area, are derelict. In fact, they are filled with one hundred de-bleated goats.

....

[Glenn doesn't know if goat staring is happening today.] “They would neither confirm nor deny. The very existence of the goats is hush-hush. They won't even admit to having goats.”

This, I later learned, was the reason for the de-bleating. It was done not because the Special Forces soldiers were required to learn how to cauterize the vocal cords of the enemy, but because Special Forces were concerned that a hudred bleating goats on base could come to the attention of the local ASPCA.

Glenn was looking a little panicked. “This is Black Op stuff,” he said.

“Where can I go from here?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” said Glenn. “Forget it.”

“I can't forget it,” I said. “It is an image I am unable to get out of my head.”

I think Mr. Ronson has an excellent way about him, when talking to people who tell him very strange things.

12 January 2006

Little while

I think that if you watch enough of the snippets of video on Little While, you just might become enlightened.

Today's quote

Any angel or archangel that this company makes, the hairstyle is the mullet.
Don't tell me you can resist reading the article that came from!

11 January 2006

Two things to make you feel bad

I'm still sick and feeling crummy, so I'm pulling this thing out of my draft archives that normally seems too horrible to post. Skip this one if you don't want to spoil your day.

The American Prospect has a fascinating review of a book of interviews with Rwandan Hutu who participated in the genocide.

They admit that they killed reluctantly at first, but soon it became routine work, no different than the hacking of weeds and plants on their plots of land. A sense of camaraderie and teamwork existed among those who hunted in the swamps, and everyone was allowed to kill at his own pace, so long as he killed.
Second, to remind us that it ain't just some savage Other that delights in killing, The Generic Brand has a depressing post about a photo-sharing website where GIs in Iraq exchange horrific, gruesome pictures, and brag about them.
... the photos are chilling. What is just as chilling, if not more so, is the attitude of the folks who post there, all swagger and chest-thumping bravado at the killing of other people. This is what war does to our sons and daughters; it dehumanizes them, it makes them capable of taking pictures like these and of being proud to have posted them for the world to see. Would you want to spend much time with a fellow who proudly posts pictures of what he terms "barbecued hajis"?
I hope to be feeling better tomorrow.

10 January 2006

Armchair

It's a mug's game to try armchair psychoanalysis of public figures, but Digby makes an attempt at it with President Bush.
The man has been in over his head since the day he entered the presidential race and he's still in over his head. 9/11 got him reelected in 2004, but he and his administration have been hanging on by their fingernails since the day they took office. They wear suits and ties and say sir and ma'm, but it's all to cover for the fact that they had no idea how to govern and by now it's clear they never will.

I see a man who is barely holding back his panic; a man who clings to his pathetic "war president" image like a talisman. He looks confused and hurt by the criticism he's receiving from people who he thought bought into the program and reportedly knows on some level that he's been duped by his advisors. He has no choice but to keep barreling along pretending that he knows what he's doing. He barks at underlings and pretends to be in charge even as he gets more and more confused. He's distanced from his father, the one person everyone thought could help guide this callow airhead if the shit came down. He trusts no one now.

I'm not sure I buy it, but I it sounds at least plausible to me. If you won't grant that much, then you haven't met as many bad CEOs as I have.

09 January 2006

Public service message

I'm fighting the worst fever I've had in more than a decade. So a word to the wise, especially in the SF Bay Area where this bug is apparently going around: if you're feeling crummy, break out the digital thermometer and start taking your temperature regularly.

In my case, I just felt a little tired for a few days and then whammo, I was flat on my back with fever. A friend told me that it sounded like a nasty bug that had been going around which had put a friend of hers in the hospital, so I started watching my temperature, which I don't ordinarily do.

I'm glad I did it this time. My temperature bounced around a lot. At one point, I thought I was feeling a bit better --- I was tired but lucid, and able to get up and move around a little --- when my temperature started climbing precipitously. At 103° I sat in the bathtub with an ice pack on my head and started running cold water into the bath. At 103.5° I was up to my chest in very cold water. This is not fun, but less fun was watching my temperature climb to peak at 104°. It dipped back down --- to 103.5° --- but held there for a discomfortingly long time. After an hour in the tub, maybe a little more, my fever suddenly just broke completely for an hour. (Then made a comeback, but never again quite so bad. I'm pretty steady at 100.5° today.)

No harm done: 104° is actually sustainable for a little while without ill effects. But if you get up to 105°, your brains start to cook. I dread to think what might have happened had I not been watching the thermometer.

My point being: if you're feeling bad, start checking your temperature. The bug going around is a doozy.

07 January 2006

Next up, Iran

I've commented before about signs that the neocons want to invade Iran, as if we don't have enough troubles in Iraq. Ken MacLeod sums up the neocon motives that make this sound like something they would plausibly pursue.
Iran has everything Saddam's Iraq didn't: effective armed forces, mass militias, long-range missiles, and a terror network non-state clients happy to help. The aftermath of an attack on Iran would feel like a real war, with bombs and queues and everything. It would do wonders for moral clarity on the home front, for a while.
I hate the way the Bush administration constantly has me saying that I hope that I'm wrong.

06 January 2006

Softball

I have a story about softball for you.
A homeless guy who clouts homers in a softball league somewhere in the heartland.

It sounded too good to be true, at first, but baseball is full of things that are too good to be true --- baseball itself is too good to be true --- and that's one of the things we love about it. Like no other sport, baseball caters to our need for mythology. For pretend.

Only now, looking back, do I recognize the internal pretending that propelled me to St. Louis in the first place. I told myself I wanted a good story, but in truth I wanted a simple story, one that was laid out before me, neatly arranged between two clean white lines. No trapdoors, no surprises. As I usually do when the world seems unusually crazy, I wanted to focus on something easy, just for a few hours. And I figured: What's easier than baseball? What could be more therapeutic for a flagging spirit than a nice, one-dimensional hero with a bat in his hand?

Needless to say, the story doesn't turn out to be simple. But it does turn out to be a bit heartwarming ... in an ironic way.

05 January 2006

Lego technology

I was amazed by the engineering wittiness of the Lego photocopier. But I'm double dazzled by the Lego 3D printer.

Not only does it enable you to cast things in any shape you want, "printing" any shape you send to its software like in normal 3D printing, which is cool enough right there --- not only does it do this in a machine made from Legos, which is that much cooler --- but it casts its printout in chocolate, which may well make it the coolest machine ever.

04 January 2006

Bubble

For those who care, Brad DeLong quotes some disconcerting observations from Paul Krugman about housing prices.

EULA

Just about any piece of software you buy, or even just download and use for free, demands that you sign an “end user license agreement”—EULA for short—a legal contract between you and the software maker. It may come up in one of the endless dialogue boxes you click through during the intial install. Or it may come with the CD, with a note saying that opening the shrink wrap constitues agreement to this contract. Or it may come in some other form.

You may never have noticed this. You may have started blocking it out after years of dealing with software. But I want to talk about how very weird it is.

First, an ironic comment:



A Eulogy for the EULA by factoryjoe

See, EULAs say bascially two things. The software manufacturer isn't responsible for anything bad that happens to anyone as a result of using the software. And the software manufacturer doesn't promise that the software will work consistently, or at all, or really do anything.

And they say it in dense, verbose, unreadable legal language—pulling an example off of the web practically at random, I find a EULA from Microsoft that runs over 4700 words ... and in the first paragraph, it says that might not be all of it!

An amendment or addendum to this EULA may accompany the Product

Think about it for a minute. Most Americans, and practically all American corporations, are bound in a mountain of legal language generated by the software industry. I'm pretty sure that I personally am bound by more words of legal language from software EULAs than from every other source put together.

Mind you, we agree to these things under coercive circumstances under which we cannot possibly reflect on the legal consequences. Ian Goldberg and Kat Hanna tell a story about trying to confront Dell about the opacity of their EULA, and the series of misadventures they have just trying to get a straight answer about what their EULA contains.

He said he installs things all the time without reading the license agreements. He says I should just do that. I ask if he's really telling me to lie and to agree to legal documents I haven't seen.

This is madness of Kafkaesque proportions, and its purpose is to protect the software industry from making any quality guarantees for their products. What other industry imagines they could even attempt such a scam? Not promising that their products will work at all?

Last year, I was at a client's office and I heard that some US congressional representative was kicking around the office somewhere, doing a tour of Silicon Valley and looking to hear from industry leaders what congress should be doing to help the Dynamic World of High Tech fullfil the promise of the Economy of Tomorrow ... yadda yadda yadda. Though neither I nor the folks I was meeting with were going to meet the rep, we spent a few minutes brainstorming about what legislation would be good for the industry.

I said we need legislation limiting these damned EULAs. It shouldn't be legal to make your customer sign a contract saying they don't mind if your product doesn't work. Aside from this being unreasonable, and maybe even immoral, it's bad for the industry. The ability to make folks agree to a restrictive EULA creates a race to the bottom. If you're a company committed to spending the time and money to make an airtight, reliable working software system, you have to compete with companies publishing slipshod crap that looks the same on the surface. Sure, in the long run you'll win customer loyalty ... but that's if you survive long enough to see the long run, which is a tough bet in the software industry. So EULAs make the industry a competition to see who can get the sloppiest code out the door fastest. That's not just bad for product users, it's bad for the companies when they are compelled to ignore questions of quality, producing the rushed production schedules, poor planning, and disinterest in customers' needs that are endemic to the industry. A little legislation saying that you can't make the kind of EULAs that everyone does now would transform the whole industry for the better, and serve the public, too.


A forthcoming documentary on this subject.

03 January 2006

Style

If you know the difference between fashion and style --- and you prefer style --- then drop by The Sartorialist for a blog of photos of people wearing clothes.

Unlimited power

Here's a question for the President.
I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society? I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?
He was actually asked, and you can read his answer.
There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law, for starters. There is oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times.

This is an awesome responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and I understand that, Peter. And we'll continue to work with the Congress, as well as people within our own administration, to constantly monitor programs such as the one I described to you, to make sure that we're protecting the civil liberties of the United States. To say "unchecked power" basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the President, which I strongly reject.

"I promised to obey the law, and I talk to some of the people in Congress ... um, after the fact ... so don't worry!"

Katherine at Obsidian Wings is unsurprised, and horrified.

Look. We have a President here who is making a claim of unlimited power, for the duration of a war that may never end. Oh, he says it's limited by the country's laws, but they've got a crack legal team that reliably interprets the laws to say that the President gets to do whatever he wants. It amounts to the same thing.

I am not exaggerating. I am really and truly not.

02 January 2006

Unconstitutional

The Decembrist makes an important point about the Bush wiretapping story.
I have to complain -- I think the left blogosphere generally is going too easy on Bush on the domestic eavesdropping. I keep seeing it referred to -- for example, in Juliette Kayem"s fine post here -- as a violation of a "statutory prohibition," implying that what Bush violated was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But it was more than that. FISA isn’t the law that prohibits domestic surveillance without a warrant. It’s the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution that does that. FISA is simply the structure by which we accomodate the need for quick turnaround and total secrecy in foreign intelligence-gathering to the Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable" domestic searches and requirement of a warrant. To operate outside of FISA is simply and directly to contravene the letter of the Fourth Amendment.

I've no intention of going too easy on Bush at this here lefty blog. Impeach him now.

Uzbekistan

Ken MacLeod wittily points us toward Lenin's Tomb, where the ghost of the October Revolution reveals that Britian has been involved in torture in Uzbekistan, and trying to cover it up.

MacLeod warns

In drawing my readers' attention to these links I do not, of course, intend in any way that anyone should actually click on them and look at the documents, let alone link to them far and wide
In defernce to this suggestion, I offer you this brief quote from Lenin's post, to show you how boring and un-click-worthy it is.
the Foreign Office does not want anyone to understand that it has taken decisions, in collaboration with MI6, to continue to use information obtained by the use of torture despite the fact that it is, as [UK ambassador to Uzbekistan] Craig Murray points out quot;highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat" or, more prosaically, "dross".
Fortunately, the US isn't involved in Uzbekistan's torture practices. Except to the degree that we have been propping up the regime as an ally, I guess. And if you cannot connect the dots here to the bankruptcy of the neo-con claim that the Bush administration's foreign policy represents America finally standing up against tyranny, then Digby spells it out for you.

01 January 2006

New Year

Let's see if we can get this one right, shall we?